Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) pose risks for workers across all fields; aerospace engineering and manufacturing is no different. Like aviation, aerospace is a specialized industry that demands not just high levels of expertise from its employees but also often requires irregular shift work, intense physical exertion, and extreme focus—engineers are responsible not just for building machines that transport human beings, but also for the safety of those machines, and even a single error can cascade into a major problem down the line. The demands of these jobs put employees in the industry at heightened risk for common injuries such as MSDs, and for companies hoping to minimize costs and productivity up, it’s essential to look to the latest in workplace injury prevention to keep workers healthy and safe on the job. Work-related MSDs across the United States are responsible for an economic impact of $45 billion to $55 billion each year, spurred by nearly 70 million visits by workers to their doctors.
What are the risks faced by aerospace workers?
This category may seem obvious, but engineers working on aircraft and other large advanced machinery interact with more dangerous equipment than employees working in other fields, and their risk of injury is heightened as a result. Studies indicate that 77% of workers in aerospace and aviation positions experience musculoskeletal injuries, with lower back injuries being the most commonly injured body part followed by the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Extreme hazards such as falling parts and malfunctioning equipment couple with more common risks like falling from height (as many engineers work on scaffolding or on top of aircraft) and muscular strain from difficult or unnatural postures, such as crouching in cockpits to install instruments. The size of the machines these workers build forces the employees to reach overhead for long periods of time, placing strain on the shoulders, back, neck, and arms. Without equipment designed with high ergonomic standards, workers are often forced to adapt to their tools and experience negative health effects such as repetitive motion injuries (RMIs). When you consider the intensity and duration of the projects aerospace engineers and production line employees tackle on a daily basis, it’s also easy to see how chronic pain can become a compounding factor in the MSD risk these workers face.
Perhaps less evident than the immediate physical risks of aerospace and aviation manufacturing work are the hazards that surround these jobs that contribute to potentially negative health effects both in the long and short term. Due to the high-pressure, high-production nature of the industry—every little detail counts!—employees often work on irregular shift schedules that introduce a range of other health and safety risks. Shift workers experience fatigue at higher rates than 9-5 daytime employees, and consecutive night shifts increases the risk of injury as a result of that fatigue. Combined with the physical exertion required by these jobs, fatigue poses a major problem for employers looking to protect their workers. Workers on irregular shift schedules or night shifts also face increased risks of cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. And because a single error could mean life or death for people using the resulting equipment down the line, the mental pressure to perform at a high level can cause distraction- and fatigue-related injuries as well.
Top Injury Prevention Tactics for Aerospace Engineers
Aerospace is one of the most technologically advanced fields of study and manufacturing in the world—why not implement safety services that are equally high-tech?
“Since we began using exoskeletons, my employees tell me, ‘now I can go home and pick up my kid, play catch, or whatever they want to do. Before, they just couldn’t do that after finishing a whole day sanding aircraft.”
– Sashikiran Prabhakar (Aviation EHS Manager)
Exoskeletons have emerged in recent years as a flexible, cost-effective solution for many of the physical stressors that lead to MSDs on manufacturing floors. These suits, often built with modular designs, can usually be configured to support the specific needs of the worker wearing the exoskeleton. Their chief use is to augment the worker’s stamina and strength by supporting the arms and back through difficult postures where the employee must reach overhead for extended periods. Aviation and aerospace jobs in particular require high levels of exertion—employees are often required to stand under the wings of aircraft or next to an elevated fuselage, performing tasks that require holding the arms above the head for extended periods during sanding, painting, and buffing. Some models use a counterweight to redistribute force to the ground to remove strain from the worker entirely, while others provide support to help workers follow best practices while lifting, carrying, pulling, or pushing. This is essential when you factor in that overexertion injuries alone can account for over $15 billion in costs to employers each year—a full quarter of all injury costs.
The result? Workers wearing exoskeletons expend less energy and put less wear and tear on their joints and soft tissues, reducing the risk of MSDs and fatigue. And exoskeletons look to be a major part of the safety landscape going forward, with researchers developing new models that require virtually no input from the wearer, freeing up both hands for tasks.
Proactive Fatigue Management Software
The promise of technology doesn’t stop there. Software systems can now provide detailed analysis of a worker’s exertion levels throughout a shift, drawing data from discreet wearable devices that monitor key benchmarks for performance. These systems are growing in value as more and more employers come to understand the implications of fatigue, which include:
- 30% increase in injury rates during night shifts
- $136.4 billion in costs from fatigue-related lost work time
Combined with basic fatigue testing, these systems help employers devise proactive fatigue management strategies that allow managers to take fatigued workers off the floor and address ongoing issues with scheduling changes and increased shift breaks. Technology can even help employees off the job, with new apps and services that allow workers to practice self-care tactics that improve their strength and conditioning from the comfort of home.
Whether your goal is to treat workers’ injuries without the need for missed days, doctor’s visits, and medication usage or to create a proactive, preventative safety culture in the workplace, on-site services can provide support for employees while helping them address the specific issues they experience as a result of their jobs. Ergonomic reviews of the job site can isolate trouble areas and equipment that contribute to poor posture or harmful biomechanical techniques and improve workstation and tool design to address the most common repetitive motion injuries and MSDs.
On-Site Biomechanics Training and Manual Therapy
A proactive on-site program should also include coaching to help employees integrate safe best practices into their tasks, transforming employees into industrial athletes who are conditioned and prepared for the rigors of the job. Biomechanics training is a growing area of interest in the safety field, combining knowledge from biology, anatomy, and physics to form a complete picture of the worker’s body and how it performs on the job. With training and support, employees can find their full potential and decrease their risk of injury at the same time.
Biomechanics training reduces injury risk by instructing employees in best practices and behaviors with specific regard to each individual’s tasks. Similarly, hands-on therapy addresses the musculoskeletal pain and discomfort inherited from years of poor mechanics and repetitive motion injuries, which occur as a natural result of job task design.
Case Study: Aviation Company Sees Safety Trends Improve
Recently, a prominent aerospace manufacturer sought to promote a safer work environment with on-site manual therapies designed to relieve pain and address the root causes of employee discomfort. After a year in the program, the company reported the following results:
- 57% reduction in overall pain levels
- 95% of participants said that the program made it easier to perform their jobs
- 42% avoided seeing a workers’ compensation doctor, saving up to $20,000 per claim
- 56% avoided sick days they would have taken without the on-site services
The numbers don’t lie: working to foster a positive and proactive safety culture can be transformative for any business, especially for one in a field as challenging and risky as aerospace engineering. With the right balance of training, technology, and hands-on care, employers can support all aspects of an employee’s health and ensure fewer injuries, lower costs, and happier workers.